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Rebuking the Tarzan Approach September 14, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Forums, Speaking, Vocabulary.

Most language learners out there should have heard about the How-to-learn-any-language forums already. You can find many experienced language learners making valuable contributions and advises there. Unfortunately, the forums are also overwhelmed with ridiculously amateur postings which just make me feel wasting my time even reading the subject lines. Frequently, you will see topics like:

1) Which language should I learn?

2) How do I master this language in a month?

3) How do I learn 5 languages at the same time?

4) I dreamed in a foreign language. Isn’t that cool?

Then there are different theories and methodologies flying around and people debating which ones are the best. I joined the forums many months ago, but I have been trying to avoid being pulled into fierce and pointless arguments. After all, who am I to debate with the experienced learners?

But once in a while, I cannot help it.

This time, it was someone coming out of the blue, and proposing many language learning ideas and approaches. A lot of these ideas already did not make sense at the first glance. Others are just plain obvious, such as work hard, don’t give up, and you will succeed. To make things worse, he used the tone of a language expert. (He later admitted that he was only an expert in education, not language acquisition).

I originally chose to ignore these posts. But there is one idea he proposed that raised my eye-brows. I worried that it could be harmful to other language learners, especially those new to language learning. I could not sit back anymore. I had to rebuke him.

Basically, the person suggested that a language learner should converse with others as early as possible, even if this would mean speaking like Tarzan:

“Me go home”
“Me want food”
“I swim now”

Those with some common sense would wonder right away: how can the learner understand the replies? So this person came up with a hypothetical dialoque, which was supposed to be conducted between a language learner at the beginner’s level (B) and a patient and considerate native speaker (NS). The objective was to use limited vocabulary and don’t worry about the grammatical errors. The native speaker should come down to the level of the beginner, even if this would mean butchering his own language:

B: Hello I here today talk
NS: Hello good see you
B: What do today you
NS: Nothing I eat look tv
B: I look superman movie
NS: Superman movie good
NS: I look superman movie yesterday
B: You like movie
NS: Yes good movie

Not before long, others members joined in and rebuked his approach. They backed their arguments up with their own experiences as well as research from language experts. His reply?

“… a theory such as your ‘prevalent’ theory supported by ‘linguistics experts’ that may have no background in actual education/learning…”

And about his method:

“Consider it, try it yourself (ideally) and discard it if it does not work for you.”

This was just outrageous!

Enough of that. I signed off from the thread. My lesson learned? As I have been stated previously in my blog – stop wasting my time and get on with some language learning. I have already wasted 2 nights!

I have promised myself to try not to fall into the same trap again. In fact, I have made my first move to unsubscribe the forums from my news reader. I will just visited the website from time to time.



1. 米蘭 - September 14, 2007

Hi Edwin, I wrote an article on my blog (21 Feb 2007) http://cantonese.hk/wp/?p=51 which relates to your post.

I read a few posts of that thread which you were talking about and thought it was time wasting.

Personally, I believe in the silent period which you have described. Its a proven method by many professional language learners like Steve Kaufmann.

There have been many occasions where I wanted to debate and argue pointlessly with other people on forums. Now-a-days I simply go to forums looking for new learning material, discuss Cantonese vocab/grammar that I’m unclear about, or look for some genuine experiences.

2. Edwin - September 14, 2007

You know. I don’t usually go into lengthy discussions. But this time, I was just 睇唔過眼!!

佢個理論已經係好荒謬, 又要辨代表. 咁多人話佢佢又唔認輪. 最慘就係有人會信佢果套, 到時真係死得人多!

3. GeoffB - September 15, 2007

Antimoon.com, a Polish site for English learners, offers a collection of myths about learning languages:


Their bête noire seems to be making people speak before the mouth and brain are ready to go about it properly. A lot of it reminds me of what Steve (the Linguist) has to say about speaking his Russian when he’s good and ready. It’s an interesting take.

One question, though: Does when you start speaking depend on whether you’re self-taught or being guided by a teacher? Does it depend on the kind of teacher/teaching?

4. Edwin - September 15, 2007

Thanks Geoff for the links. Unfortunately, I don’t think that Tarzan fellow will listen to any of these. My hope is that other learners won’t fall into the trap.

I think the same principle should apply to both self-taught and being guided by a teacher.

There is a difference between scripted conversations (drills) and real conversations. I think there is no problem start practicing scripted conversations early, either with yourself or a language tutor. In fact, I feel that a lot of conversations done in language classes are more-or-less scripted, although sometimes the teachers would try to disguise them.

As for real conversation, I have heard success stories from people who claimed to start speaking early. But the key point here is that the partner must not speak Tarzan back.

I myself have experienced how the silent period principle works, and that was even before I knew about the theory. So I am for it.

5. Computer Flashcard Nazi « Tower of Confusion - October 8, 2007

[…] I could not help it but to peek into the forums again. My dear Tarzan friend is proposing a new vocabulary learning strategy. This time, he encourages people to use paper […]

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